Mat Zo revels in return to Anjunabeats, ‘Illusion of Depth’ [Interview]
Since exploding onto the scene with his 2013 debut album Damage Control, Mat Zo has built a reputation as one of electronic music’s brightest and most versatile producers. Originating in the trance space, the Grammy-nominated artist diversified his sonic craft early on, releasing under moniker MRSA on the distinguished Hospital Records while steadily outputting on Anjunabeats, before venturing off into the corners of drum ‘n’ bass experimentalism with the creation of his label Mad Zoo. For some time, Zo has zeroed in on his imprint’s success, releasing sophomore LP Self Assemble in 2016 and a flurry of EPs, as well as spearheading A&R efforts with compilations like This is MAD ZOO and its successor, This is MAD TOO.
For the UK artist, consistent expeditions into new sounds have been a highly frequented path. As Zo has advanced his 14-years-and-counting career, his evolution has never ceased to reflect an ever-expanding vault of electronic material. Similarly, Anjunabeats has mirrored that trajectory in its development, harboring boundary-pushing acts like Spencer Brown, Andrew Bayer, and Gabriel & Dresden. Now, Zo takes a momentary sojourn as he revisits familiar ground in his coveted Anjuna return, Illusion of Depth.
Through the course of the album, the Grammy-nominated producer fleshes out ideas, tied loosely by genres and confined by no definitions: he crafts worldly vocal chops amongst progressive structures in “Fly While You’re Still Free,” juxtaposes exotic percussions with atmospheric dusk in trance-inspired “Petrushka,” and dabbles with electro-rock hybridization in “Bruxism.” Meanwhile, the presence of collaborator and vocalist Olan takes an unmistakable role in the otherwise nearly feature-free record. With the Atlanta songwriter appearing on singles, “Colours” and “Problems,” as well as intimate ballad production “Paralysis,” the album possesses both range and unifying threads.
In celebration of Illusion of Depth, Dancing Astronaut discussed Zo’s vision for the album, the role of drum ‘n’ bass in staying fresh, and blurring the lines between electronic and rock. Read the full interview below.
Congratulations on releasing Illusion of Depth. How does it feel now that you’ve delivered your third studio album?
Mat Zo: “It feels great!”
Anjunabeats housed your debut album Damage Control and there’s been a long-time relationship between you and the label. Why did it make sense to return to Anjuna for this album?
Mat Zo: “Anjuna has come a long way since Damage Control days. I knew that Anjuna would understand my vision for the album and that they would be able to execute the vision effectively.”
You’re constantly evolving your sound and this album is no exception. What vision did you have in mind when you first conceived the album?
Mat Zo: “I wanted it to be my first live orientated album, with my first timecoded lights and visuals show. My previous albums were all more conducive to listening at home or in the car and I didn’t really take the live show into account while making it.”
Illusion of Depth feels both familiar and new. How are you able to balance exercising your idiosyncratic touch with expansion into new sonic territories and concepts?
Mat Zo: “I think keeping one foot in the drum ‘n’ bass world has helped me to expand my production skills while my tastes haven’t really changed that much in my 18 years of producing. Trying to make drum ‘n’ bass to a high standard and keeping up on what’s going on in that world keeps my skills sharp.”
There’s a ton of influences across the album, notably rock stylizations. Are there any hidden inspirations you embedded that might not be as obvious to listeners?
Mat Zo: “I’ve always been a rock fan, and I’ve been in a couple of rock bands, so the rock influence is always there but it’s definitely more on the nose in Illusion of Depth. I guess my favorite periods of music were when the boundaries between rock and electronic were less clear.”
Adding onto the previous question, the album contains a refreshing amount of non-electronic influences. Which artists or bands served as your primary inspirations during the creative process?
Mat Zo: “There are so many, but here are a few examples. “Paralysis,” the most rock orientated track on the album, was inspired by Radiohead, Prince, Rammstein, 10cc, to name a few. A pretty weird mix of influences.”
How did you and Olan first start working together?
Mat Zo: “Back in 2014, she replied to one of my tweets where I was looking for vocalists. I didn’t use the vocal she sent at the time, but we kept in touch. Eventually, in 2017 we finally hung out and recorded some stuff in my studio. I was always impressed with her sincerity in her songwriting, and her stylistic range. It makes her the perfect songwriting partner for someone who makes drum n’ bass one day and a rock ballad the next. I think a lot of the magic of the music we write together comes from the fact that it’s a process we go through together, I don’t just ask her to slap a topline on an already made instrumental.”
“Paralysis” is a huge stand-out track in both tonality and production. Can you tell me how that song came about?
Mat Zo: “It’s definitely the most personal song I ever wrote. I’m pretty proud of it. It was meant to be a track with synthetic vocaloid vocals for my second album Self Assemble, but it wasn’t good enough at the time so I saved it for the next album. After working with Olan for a bit, I decided she should sing it and she absolutely nailed it.”
You’ve been extremely active in the virtual events space with Mad Zoo. Why has that been important for you to work on in the past few months? Did you learn anything new from those experiences?
Mat Zo: “I just felt like DJ livestream events weren’t cutting it in terms of giving people an experience to remember and there weren’t many people attempting to do something more memorable. I spent years making adventure maps in Minecraft so it made sense to put those skills into making events, and luckily I accumulated a team of extremely talented like-minded people to help. Sadly the only way to do these events effectively is to charge money for them, but so far we haven’t had anyone complain after experiencing what they paid for.”
Featured image: @ndkimages